Many of us autistics live outside our comfort zone anyway. We have to as most of life is outside of it!
What if I suggested to you that life outside your comfort zone is an okay thing?
Would that freak you out? Maybe not. And for a simple reason!
But what if I went further and suggested that we leave behind the idea of a comfort zone and focus instead on the idea of safety by learning the boundary between safe and unsafe, understanding that our comfort (or discomfort as the case may be) sometimes has nothing to do with our actual safety?
AND that if we shift our focus in this manner, at some point, that which we come to understand is safe will begin to feel comfortable?
How does that feel?
I DO Love My Comfort Zone,…
I gotta be honest, I love to be comfortable as much as the next gal. My happy place? Sitting on the couch tucked under a heavy blanket with a good book.
I also like to closely manage my people time and deal with folks on my own timetable. Small gatherings, love them. Large, intense, intellectual projects, like a warm fire on a cold snowy night!
I definitely know where my comfort zone is, and I would love to just stay in it. I feel all dreamy just thinking about it! Aaaahhhh!!!
…But It Is Pretty Small!
But with such a small comfort zone, staying in it becomes unsafe. I would not be able to earn a living, have meaningful relationships, or learn and grow if I stayed in my comfortable little bubble. This little article would not be published, nor would any of my other writings, had I stayed comfy. I wrote about puberty for goodness sake (Autism and Puberty: Get Your Daughter Ready!), and I have to tell you that was WAY outside my comfort zone.
I WANT to succeed, I WANT to get to know people, and I WANT to learn and grow. And wanting those things and doing those things is SAFE, at least for me, in the sense that it helps me maintain my self-esteem, confidence, need for human contact, etc. It is not always comfortable!
Contrast that with staying in my little comfortable bubble and over the long run, I would begin to lose my overall health. It isn’t safe to cut yourself from the world; it’s not healthy.
In essence, I want to be safe more than I want to be comfortable. So what do I do? I venture out into the world, put on my smiley face, and dive in.
In going from this transition from comfortable to safe enough times, I found some level of familiarity or comfort in knowing that if I let go of a reality that was not safe and allowed myself to experience the discomfort of change I could reach a safer even more comfortable place on the other side.
What Is “Comfortable”?
What do I mean when I say comfortable?
Well, I think for me and most people, it is what we know — what is predictable.
Comfortable, I think, to many means familiar.
We become so familiar with particular people, foods, spending habits, jobs, etc., we don’t want to leave, or maybe a better way to say it, is we don’t want to face change. Because leaving would mean we leave behind what we know and what has become predictable even when it is not safe or good for us to stay.
Let’s face it, change is hard and it can be scary.
Let’s take a few examples of the struggle between comfortable and safe:
Have you ever been in a bad relationship, but been unwilling to leave it because you didn’t want to be alone or because you thought you couldn’t get someone else, or worse you didn’t deserve better?
My friend, you were “comfortable,” but not safe. I have sooo been there. I stayed in terrible relationships until I was damaged professionally, financially, and personally. Why? Because it was all I knew. The message to me was that I could never make it on my own and after a time I came to believe it.
I made the change from comfortable to safe when “comfortable” became so painful that it wasn’t comfortable anymore. I so hope you don’t wait as long as I did!
What did I found when I finally developed the courage to leave? FREEDOM. Freedom so sweet and significant I still to this day can’t believe I get to start the day knowing that no one is going to lie to me, cheat on me, manipulate me, use me, or sabotage me!
Can I have an “Amen?” It was definitely an answered prayer for me!
If you want to learn more about safe people, you can check out my post, “My GREATEST Struggle As An Autism: Identifying Safe People.”
What about refusing to try new foods? Many of us with autism, especially kiddos, eat way too few foods. Comfortable? Yep. Safe? Nope!
I am one of those adventurous girls that likes bland food and always orders the same thing at a restaurant. I actually don’t think what others think of as bland is bland to me at all as I tend toward hypersensitive. The result, however, was that my diet was made up of mostly the same foods eaten over and over.
It wasn’t until we were forced to go on diets like GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) that I began to realize how unsafe comfortable was for me in this context. When I added lots of healthy and diverse choices to my menu, I felt better, my head cleared, and I had tons more energy! As I point out in my post, “Autism on the Menu: I Am Not A Gluten-Full Cookie,” I went one further and decided not only to try new foods, but to just be me!
Find yourself buying something you shouldn’t at the store or binge purchasing every time you find a great clearance sale? Probably. Comfortable? Sure. Safe? No!!
My daughters used to believe that you purchased from the sale racks and the other racks were just on some kind of hold until those items reached the clearance table! That is not an exaggeration of how things used to be. Poor things!
It didn’t help that if we dared to buy anything nice for ourselves, we were confronted by anger and ridicule on our return home. Remember those bad relationships?
Now? Free from the message that I am not good enough and don’t deserve nice things, I save up for things I like and want and buy myself things that are nice and will stand the test of time. If I can wait to purchase those things on sale, awesome. I have found that I buy LESS, much less, by purchasing only items I need or want rather than getting sucked into sales or clearance shopping and buying because prices are good.
In addition, because I am buying nice things that I need, I feel better about the things I own and myself. I actually had to learn that it was okay to enjoy my belongings! It still surprises me how much less I spend and how much better I feel using this shopping philosophy, but had I remained comfortable but unsafe, I would not be enjoying life nearly as much!
Okay, one more: Have a job you hate that stresses you out, but you are afraid or unmotivated to leave either by finding something better or creating your own job? Comfortable, but not safe.
I had a job that literally caused me so much anxiety it literally brought me to my knees. I hated it. Really hated it. I even tried to quit several times as it was taking a tremendous toll on my physical and mental health.
Never before had I experienced this type of stress from a simple job. In addition, my kiddos were beginning to experience some health issues. Long story short, the market tanked and a layoff arose. Because the layoff came with a severance, I requested that I be let go.
Sounds easy, right? No way!
I waffled back and forth. The world says you do not give up a job unless you have a job. The world says you need a job to have insurance, vacation time, a steady paycheck, and that you have to suck up whatever mistreatment your employer dishes out.
So anyway, I got up the nerve to write up my email request to be laid off and sat for over an hour with my finger hovering over the “send” button. When I couldn’t do it, I phoned a friend who spent another half an hour helping me get up the courage to push the button.
I did it.
My life since then? While not as financially secure, it is 100% better in all other regards. I would like to earn more money, but I am happier than I have been in a very long time. The people I left at that company? The ones I have spoken to anyway still live with the same issues I had been experiencing. The people I knew who left the company when I did or shortly thereafter? They are pursuing newer and cooler opportunities. We left behind the “comfortable” in favor of the safe.
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Familiar Maybe Is Not The Same As Comfortable!
So with these examples, you may be seeing that what we think of as our comfort zone really isn’t always that comfortable at all. Yeah, I am super comfortable on my couch with a book and a blanket and as long as I am not shirking my responsibililties, I am safe as well. In the other examples, however, I was really clinging to the familiar, scared to try something new, scared to believe in myself and thereby shorting myself, my growth and my health at the same time.
No, I am not telling you to leave your relationships and quit your jobs! I am suggesting to you that you reconsider how you make the decisions about what you allow in your life and reconsider your desire to be “comfortable.”
I would suggest that you can be happy if you are uncomfortable but safe, where you may really struggle to be happy if you are “comfortable” but unsafe.
Even now when I say it that way, it sounds a little crazy, but I bet if you really think about your life and ask separately if something is comfortable or if it is safe, and then go a step farther and ask yourself if you are willing to give up your “comfort” to be safe, things will look a bit different.
My New Comfort Zone? Sometimes Uncomfortable, But Safe
We live outside our comfort zone anyway, many of us. Though we rarely get credit for it, it is actually one of our strengths. I truly do believe that most of the world grossly underestimates our ability to face down things that are not comfortable.
People see “meltdowns” and struggles because those are visible, but our insane wins and our determination and courage are often invisible.
Why do I point this out? Because I totally believe that if you are in an unsafe situation you already probably mastered the skill of being uncomfortable, and you need only apply it to whatever context you choose in order to reach safety.
Here is the hardest part to face, but maybe the most freeing: We work our tails to the bone to please others, to meet their expectations, and to satisfy the world and much of the time we are doing that, we are uncomfortable. Sometimes we even give up our own identity. (Check out my post, “Dear Women With Autism: Be ‘Chameleons’ No More, Let’s Get To Know YOU!”) Aren’t you worth that same effort? Shouldn’t you work harder to care for yourself than you do for others? You have the skill, all you have to do is to continue to use it for your own benefit.
I came to this last realization the hard way. I really did let myself be nearly destroyed before I decided to stand up and fight for me rather than fighting for someone else.
My lesson learned? I now much prefer safety to “comfort.” I make my decisions in terms of what is safe for me rather than what is familiar.
Each time I choose safety, it becomes more comfortable, and I become more willing to take the first steps toward getting there. Sometimes if the step feels really big, I enlist the advice and help of a friend or professional. I carefully consider whether this step is in my best interest and then I proceed.
So where do you live now? Are you comfortable or are you safe, or are you both?
And where do you want to live?
Only you can answer these questions for you, and your answers may be completely different than mine.
My encouragement to you?
Care enough about yourself to choose to be safe! Ask for help getting there if you need it. Because you are enough. Just you!